by Bob Phillips

Consider the following ‘what if’ possibilities:

  • What if the One Church/Local Option plan passes at General Conference?
  • What if the Connectional Conference plan passes?
  • What if the Traditional Plan passes?
  • What if the Simple Plan passes?
  • What if no plan passes?
  • What if none of the above scenarios play out at General Conference?
  • What if the Judicial Council in October declares all or part of one or more plans to be unconstitutional?

One of the crucial roles for seasoned leaders is to tease out the unintended consequence and realistic ‘what if’ scenarios. From 30 years of service in the Navy and Marine Corps I have seen firsthand the difference such leadership makes in life and death situations, and other settings less traumatic but significant. As a first -time delegate to a General Conference I realized the what-if slab of leadership had been omitted by virtually all parties.

The first week of the 2016 conference, dedicated to committee work, clearly indicated the more traditional perspective was running the table in decisions related to human sexuality and other contentious issues such as abortion or efforts for a church boycott of Israel. As the plenary session of the second week began, new as I was to the politics of General Conference, I clearly could see a train wreck coming. With no coherent plan in place and no serious what-if alternatives vetted by leadership, the GC was poised to vote a reaffirmation of existing church teaching on matters of human sexuality.

As a supporter of those teachings, and as one who declared so when I submitted my name for consideration as a delegate, such reaffirmation was and is fine with me. But I also stated in my submission as a candidate opposition to schism, the destructive tearing apart of the church. My conviction was that, with well-intentioned incoherence and denial at work, the unintended consequence of simply voting such reaffirmation would be ugly, destructive, schismatic. The 2012 disruption of the GC would be a tea party compared to what would happen.  Out of that concern, shared by many on all sides, the Way Forward process was formed. The Council of Bishops, that seems never to have seriously and collectively discussed the elephant in the room, was challenged ‘to lead,‘ as delegate Tom Berlin so succinctly phrased his appeal.

Fast forward to 2019…or slow walk if that image seems more fitting. The Way Forward Commission has done its work. Three formal plans will be submitted for consideration. Other possibilities, such as the Simple Plan (most closely aligned in language to a hybrid of the Episcopal and the Unitarian-Universalist approach) exist. The Council of Bishops is pushing for the One Church plan, which is fine provided no perception forms that they also are seeking to game the integrity of the process by ignoring or devaluing other approaches. That perception would expand existing trust deficits to chasm-matic proportions.

Part of key leadership by the bishops and by conference and advocacy groups is to engage the what-if scenarios that began this piece. This article is not going to do that work but to argue that work is vital to finesse some lasting good out of the process. In the play Inherit the Wind is a scene where Matthew Harrison Brady is confronted on the witness stand about his total lack of knowledge of basic geology, to which he replies, “I do not think about things I do not think about.” That approach has run its course insofar as General Conference is concerned. It is time for all groups and all sides to do the hard thinking and ‘what if’ planning.

How does leadership of the Uniting Methodists movement plan to respond if the Traditional plan is passed in some basic form? What will be the response of Love Prevails, the Reconciling Movement for United Methodists, or the MFSA? How will the Wesleyan Covenant Association or Good News respond if the One Church plan in some form is selected? How will these groups respond if the Connectional plan is affirmed? And “what if” the Judicial Council decides part or the whole of one or more proposed plans does not pass constitutional muster?

Most of all, what will be the response of the Council of Bishops to some of these scenarios? Many feel the choice of the Traditional Plan will lead to open defiance and disobedience by several bishops who already are in essential defiance of the Discipline. Many feel a choice of the One Church plan will lead to an exodus of many evangelical clergy and congregations. If so, will the bishops adopt the Episcopal Church posture of property war, a series of battles that cost that much smaller denomination an estimated 50 million dollars in litigation? But will all that many traditional congregations actually leave?  What if?

I offer two suggestions for leadership and those in the trenches. First, affirm all the special interest groups to work the what-if scenarios with integrity and without nasty innuendo. Maybe the RMUM or the Uniting Methodists or even Love Prevails are not planning to burn down the convention center and run screaming through the streets if their form of love does not prevail. Maybe the WCA is not plotting schism, with plans to take the Holy Spirit hostage, no matter what the GC decides. Maybe the bishops really have seriously begun to tease out unintended consequences of possible decisions, with PERT charts already in place for process mapping if this or that or the other is voted. Dial back questioning the motives so that all the spiritual stakeholders can fully engage the challenge. Dial back the gossip about “them.”

Second, remember our Elvis has not left the building, for he has said, “I am with you always.” Let scripture remain the central guide, informed by living tradition, Christian community, the movement of the Spirit and sanctified common sense. This is not just another autopsy for the Harvard Business School on the implosion or renewal of an organization. We are the body of Christ and called to be about our Father’s business. We are not ‘Jerks for Jesus,’ but disciples of Jesus, who has called us to a Kingdom that cannot be shaken. David Swing, well-known liberal Chicago preacher in the 1800’s was asked by a young liberal pastor how to improve his preaching. “Try religion,” he replied. Keep Jesus central. His name is central on website and in worship. Let his name be central even at General Conference as we pray, “Thy will be done.”


Rev. Dr. Bob Phillips is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Illinois, with advanced degrees from Asbury, Princeton and St. Andrews (Scotland). He retired with the rank of Captain as the senior United Methodist Chaplain in the US Navy in 2005.  An elder in the Illinois Great Rivers Conference, Bob most recently served as Directing Pastor of Peoria First United Methodist Church prior to his retirement.  


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